Politics & Government

Greg Murphy defeats candidate backed by GOP women in NC congressional primary runoff

State Rep. Greg Murphy won Tuesday’s runoff for the Republican nomination in North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District in a race that exposed a gender rift among U.S. House Republicans and attracted attention from some of the biggest names in Republican politics.

Murphy will be the favorite to represent the GOP-leaning district in Eastern North Carolina. He joins Democrat Allen Thomas, Libertarian Tim Harris and Constitution Party candidate Greg Holt on the ballot for the Sept. 10 general election.

Murphy, a urologic surgeon from Greenville, won the nomination over first-time candidate Joan Perry, a Kinston pediatrician, in a bid to replace Walter B. Jones, Jr., in the House. With all precinct reporting, Murphy had 59.7 percent of the vote and topped Perry by nearly 7,000 total votes.

“Residents of the 3rd District deserve a Representative who will fight for their values in Washington and be accountable to their constituents, not special interests, and they’ll get exactly that with Dr. Murphy. We look forward to deploying the full resources of the NCGOP in order to ensure that Dr. Murphy is victorious in September,” newly elected North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley said in a statement Tuesday night.

After the election was called, Murphy got an endorsement from the NC Values Coalition, which called Murphy a “true pro-life conservative leader.”

Thomas, the former mayor of Greenville and the former executive director of the North Carolina Global TransPark in Kinston, won 49.9 percent of the vote in a six-way Democratic primary in April.

National Democrats drew attention after the results to the overwhelmingly male House Republican caucus, which includes 185 men and just 13 women.

“(This) primary result in North Carolina is, sadly, yet another predictable and staggering blow to Washington Republicans’ attempts to add vital female voices to their caucus. With their toxic policy platform of higher health care costs and their utter failure to support female candidates, it’s no wonder Washington Republicans continue to repel women voters heading into the 2020 cycle,” said Melissa Miller, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a statement.

But Rep. Mark Meadows, who represents far western North Carolina, downplayed the gender divide among Republicans in the race.

Meadows and fellow House Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan supported Murphy, who is expected to join the conservative Freedom Caucus if elected.

“This is more about establishment special interest money against the Freedom Caucus. It just happened to be a female candidate,” Meadows told The News & Observer on Tuesday night. He said the House Freedom Fund has supported five women in Republican primaries and “we look forward to supporting a number of others in races to come. Hopefully we can team up with some of the people investing against Dr. Greg Murphy in an effort to get the most viable pro-Trump candidate.”

Voter turnout

Jones held the seat from 1995 until his death at 76 in February, necessitating the special election to fill the rest of his term. Jones did not face a Democratic challenger in the 2018 election. Jones’ father, Walter B. Jones, Sr., represented many of the same counties as a Democrat from 1966 until his death in 1992 while in office.

The 3rd district includes parts or all of 17 counties in the eastern part of the state. The district includes more than half of the state’s coast.

There were 312,562 voters eligible to vote in Tuesday’s second primary, including all registered Republicans in the district as well as unaffiliated voters who did not vote in the Democratic or Libertarian primary earlier this year. Nearly 36,000 voters cast ballots in the second primary, or about 11.5% of eligible voters.

Murphy won 9,530 votes in the April primary, topping the 17-candidate field with 22.5 percent of the vote — short of the 30 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Perry finished second with 6,536 votes. State Rep. Phil Shepard finished third with 5,101 votes. Murphy and Perry exceeded their previous vote totals on Tuesday night.

Republican divide — and healing?

Jones was known to irritate members of his own party, often voting against Republican measures that raised the debt and calling for a new vote on war authorization in the Middle East. He voted with President Donald Trump less than any other Republican member (and many Democrats), according to one metric.

But Trump won the district easily in 2016, and the candidates embraced the president. Both tried to pitch themselves as the true conservative in the race during the nine-week sprint from the first primary to the second.

An ad by House Freedom Action called Perry a “lying Nancy Pelosi liberal,” highlighting Perry’s backing of conservative Democrat Mike McIntyre in a 2012 U.S. House race and her initial reluctance to support Trump’s national emergency declaration to free up money for his border wall.

Perry initially backed Sen. Thom Tillis’ first position on the declaration, worried about the precedent the declaration might set. Perry and Tillis now support the national emergency declaration.

Perry tried to tie Murphy to his legislation calling for expanding health care to lower-income North Carolina residents, calling it “expansion of Medicaid by another name.” Murphy is no longer a co-sponsor of the NC Health Care for Working Families legislation in the statehouse, a change apparently made in the days leading up to the election.

The bill moved forward in the NC House on Tuesday, as part of a potential budget compromise with Gov. Roy Cooper. Murphy has said he supports block grants for Medicaid at the federal level.

The runoff became something of a proxy fight among Republicans.

Rep. Jordan visited the district. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum backed the campaign. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani recorded a robocall for Murphy, who was also endorsed by Women for Trump, Students for Trump and the Tea Party Express.

Perry was backed by all 13 GOP women in the U.S. House, including Reps. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Elise Stefanik of New York. Other high-profile Republican women like Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin also endorsed Perry. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recorded a robocall for Perry.

North Carolina Reps. George Holding and Patrick McHenry supported her campaign, which got significant investment from two outside groups — the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List and Winning For Women, a group dedicated to electing more conservative women to Congress.

Winning For Women spent about $900,000 on Perry’s behalf. Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, a native of Greenville, was in the district on Election Day, hoping to turn out the vote for Perry. Women Speak Out, the group’s partner PAC, spent more than $310,000 on Perry’s behalf.

“Joan ran a great campaign, and we’re proud to have supported her from day one,” said Rebecca Schuller, executive director of Winning For Women. “Primary support is critical to electing more women. This race is exactly why we are needed more than ever. We’re not stopping here.”

Winning For Women has set a goal of having 20 Republican women in the U.S. House after the 2020 election.

The biggest pre-election backing may have come from Jones’ widow, Joe Anne Jones, who held an event to tout her warm feelings for Perry. Jones did not offer an official endorsement, but made it clear Perry was her choice over Murphy, who served as Walter Jones’ doctor.

But it didn’t matter in the end as Murphy had strong support across the district, winning 12 of 17 counties. Meadows said he expected the party to come together quickly behind Murphy.

“Primaries have a way of becoming contentious. I don’t think that generally speaking they have a long lasting effect. Most people are looking for who someone can support President Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda,” Meadows said. “I can’t imagine the Democrat nominee will be supportive of President Trump’s initiatives.”

Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.